Engaging Families, Intervention Visits, Practical Strategies

Names are Important: Please Don’t Call Me “Mom”

The educator knocks and Malik’s mother answers the door. They introduce themselves then move out to the backyard where Malik and his sister are playing in the sandbox. The educator sits down and says “So, Mom, is this one of Malik’s favorite things to do?”

Wait…did you notice anything wrong with this picture?

Using Parent’s Proper Names vs. “Mom” – Is this Important?

You might think that this is really no big deal, calling Malik’s mother “mom” instead of using her proper name. Why do we do this? Why do so many professionals settle on “mom” or “dad” during the EI visit, at the pediatrician’s office or the child care center? I think it’s probably just easier than remembering the parent’s name. I think we do this, too, because that’s how we view this adult we are working with – primarily in the role of parent or caregiver. We don’t know them well and have identified them in this category, even though they are likely to be many more things in their real life. For others of us, it’s just plain old habit.

A Show of Respect

I believe that using the parent’s proper name is a show of respect. Don’t you feel better when someone you meet remembers to use your name? It feels like it puts you and the other person on more equal footing, like you are important enough for them to remember who, not what, you are. It’s a tactic regularly used in sales and customer service to make customers feel appreciated and to build trust. Names are important.

How Would You Like To Be Addressed?

Do you usually ask parents how they prefer to be addressed? To be painfully honest, I didn’t ask this question for many years, and just made the assumption that I would use first names to help build a less formal relationship. It dawned on me (much too late) that not all families viewed our relationship as informal and in fact wanted to maintain boundaries that came with using Mr. or Mrs. I also realized that generational and cultural differences affected what parents and caregivers wanted to be called – this “ah-ha” moment came when I called a grandmother by her first name and she corrected me to call her Mrs. —. It also dawned on me that asking caregivers how they wanted to be addressed was a simple empower strategy because there is power in a name and they should have the right to choose what they’re called.

I’m Not Your Mom

One thing I didn’t do, even in my days as a young early interventionist, was call parents “mom” or “dad.” I did use those names when I was speaking to the child, like “give it to mama” or “where’s daddy?” but I always asked the parent what the child called him/her first.  I’ve seen interventionists fail to do this over long periods of time, for instance calling the father “Daddy” when he’s actually “Papa.” Calling the mother “mom” always felt uncomfortable to me, even before I was a parent, because this person was not my mom and actually “belonged” to someone else. Once I became a parent, I realized that being called “mom” by other people felt even weirder. I  usually speak up and say that calling me by my first name is fine. Some families might not feel comfortable requesting this, but if we gave them the chance, they just might.

Unfortunately, I’ve also heard professionals call parents “mom” or “dad” with an undercurrent of condescension, as if saying “you are just the parent, I am the expert.” We work hard in early intervention to build the parent-provider partnership so this is not an impression that we want to give. Using parent’s names, whatever they want to be called, is just one small thing we can do to let parents know that we respect and value their role in early intervention.

Three Quick Tips:

Ask the parent how he/she wants to be addressed.

Make an effort to remember and use the parent’s name.

Ask about what names the child & family use to refer to parents, grandparents, and other important people.

What are your thoughts about this? What do you call parents and why? Leave a comment belo to share your thoughts.

 

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10 Comments to “Names are Important: Please Don’t Call Me “Mom””

  1. Thank you so much for addressing this important topic! As nurse and then a parent of a child with special needs (who is now 20 years-old), hearing health care, education, and/or early intervention staff, call me or our program’s family members “mommy” “mom” “dad” has always been a big “pet peeve.” Thank you for your article and helpful advise.

    • Me too! It’s a pet peeve of mine but the more I thought about it, I began to think it was bigger than just my personal preference. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      Btw, when I read your comment I thought I had written to myself…Dana Cox is my maiden name! Small world! 🙂

  2. One person’s pet peeve is another person’s “aha moment”!! I’m so glad you reminded us how important it is to ask family members what they would like us to call them, as well as what names they want their child to learn and use (mama vs. mommy, papa vs. dada). Another tip I have found helpful came from my own “burn and learn”. At initial evaluations, when the entire team showed up to the family’s home together, we were in the habit of introducing ourselves as we entered and then heading to the space where we would begin. I am notoriously bad with remembering names and was embarrassed to ask the parent to repeat themselves, so I would sometimes resort to “mom” or “dad”. I asked our team if we could wait until we all got seated in the living room to make our introductions and was then able to write down what the family members names were and how to address them! Not only was I better prepared, but I hope this also helped decrease the confusion for the family when a large group of new faces entered their home!

    • Such a great strategy, Amy!! I am also really bad at remembering names unless I write them down. I used to repeat the parent’s name in my head until I sat down and could write it down. I like the idea that this strategy could help the interventionist and the family – imagine trying to remember the names of 3-4 strangers that just entered your home and sat in your floor! Imagine, too, what we’d think if the parent just called us “teacher” or “therapist” instead of our names! 🙂

  3. This was an interesting observation and discussion that I frankly had not thought about but have witnessed happening and admittedly done by myself.

    Good advice to ask what folks want to be addressed by. This points out to me how we do need to study and talk about what is actually happening in our practices and are these practices really family centered. Certainly empowerment and respect are key concepts of family centeredness and this simple obervation highlights how nuanced our practices can be.

    Thanks

    • I agree, Allan. Taking the time to think about the nuances, as you say, of our practices is important. Things that seem small like names or who you make eye contact with on a visit can make such a difference. I was just in a conference presentation this morning with a parent presenter who shared that the fact that one EI team member never looked at or talked to her during the assessment (and instead talked to her mother) made her sure that she did not want to work with that person. The nuances really do matter.

  4. I first heard this from Robin McWilliam, years ago. Glad you’re spreading the word too!

    • Thanks, Lee! This is not a new concept but persists, doesn’t it? I’m at a fantastic EI/EC conference this week and hear parents called “mom” or “dad” everywhere. It’s something we don’t think about but really should.

  5. It was great to see this article. I agree that it is so important to address parents by their names, rather than just calling them mom and dad. It almost feels like another type of people first language, making sure that we are addressing the parent as an individual person rather than just as their title. It seems as though this would aid in building the parent-provider relationship.

    • Exactly! You make a powerful point, Lauren – this is like another version of people-first language. Most of us don’t think about “mom” or “dad” as a title but it really is. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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